Now it’s the Denver Broncos’ turn to face the howling winds of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. If any team can withstand them, it’s the AFC champions.
The Broncos have a defense than can take some of the joy out of Newton’s afternoon, maybe even knock him around a bit. And they have a quarterback who probably is the best ever at running the show from the line of scrimmage and whose mastery of last-second play changing can offset Kuechly’s fury.
Peyton Manning is the NFL’s career passing leader with 71,940 yards and 539 touchdowns. He has won five MVP awards, been named first-team All-Pro seven times, led his team to the playoffs 15 times, taken them to the Super Bowl three previous times and won it once.
Sunday’s game is expected to be Manning’s last. He has played the game at its most brutal level for 18 years. His throwing arm never fully recovered from his 2011 neck-fusion surgery. This season, the left foot went bad with a partially torn plantar fascia. He is 39. Even with a healthy plantar fascia, the last thing anybody his age needs is to have a truck with Carolina plates named Kawann Short running him down in the backfield.
You worry about his health, but then you see him scramble for a first down on third and long to hold off the New England Patriots long enough to keep them from winning.
Maybe he can play another season or more, but the wistful Manning sounded this week like a guy absorbing his final football moments.
He remembered getting choked up at one Super Bowl when he heard Billy Joel sing the national anthem. He said he got a lump in his throat at another one “hearing Prince singing ‘Purple Rain’ in the rain down in Miami – that was kind of emotional in a weird way.” He talked about his love for his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, and for his high school football coach, Tony Reginelli, and for his offensive coordinator from Indianapolis, Tom Moore, and for the football-family moments shared with his brother, Eli. He worried whether football crazies in his hometown of New Orleans can watch the Super Bowl while attending the Krewe of Bacchus parade at the same hour, two days before Mardi Gras.
Steeped in the philosophy of Toby Keith, the quarterback applied a concept from the country sage to his own circumstance: “I’m not as good as I once was,” he told the mob at the SAP Center in San Jose on Monday, “but I’m as good once as I ever was.” How this plays out for Manning on Sunday will be of interest to those who back him at plus-5 1/2 points.
There were no announcements about retirement. He said he tried to “stay in the moment” of the week, including the media day frenzy. Even if he got sucked in a couple times by attention seekers selling their own schtick, Manning could not help but slip into some reflection when asked about his legacy.
“I would like to be known as a really good teammate for all the players that I’ve played with,” Manning said. “I’ve worked hard to be a good teammate, and having really good relationships with my teammates has been important to me, and also having the respect of the coaches that I’ve played for and against and the players I’ve played against – I think that’s important to me. And also, that I love football very, very much, and I always have.”
Here’s one reason Manning has achieved historic success: “I think one thing that’s helped me is I think I’ve been flexible. I haven’t been stubborn by saying, ‘This is the only way to do it. This is the only way to call plays, the only way to make this throw.’ I’ve learned from different coaches. I’ve had five different coaches in my career, different offensive coordinators. I think being flexible, being able to adjust, adjusting to a new physical state these past few years, and to new teammates, I think that’s helped me.”
Gil Brandt has worked in and around the NFL for 60 years – scout for the Rams, player personnel director for the Cowboys, NFL.com senior analyst and commentator on Sirius NFL Radio Network. He’s seen every quarterback going back to Otto Graham, the eight-time champion of the Cleveland Browns. He easily puts Manning in the top 10. Manning gets there, in Brandt’s book, because of his work habits, leadership, character, calm and smarts.
“If you ask him what Carolina does on third-and-seven from the right hash mark if they’re behind by seven points, he’d know it, because he’s studied it,” Brandt said.
Two years ago, the Broncos and Manning got blown out in the Super Bowl by Seattle. Carolina will not do the same, mainly because Denver’s defense was so-so then and is the best in the NFL now. If the Broncos’ defense keeps it close late, they have a quarterback who might find a way to be as good one last time as he ever was.